Over the past few years there have been several family-friendly films about the bond between humans and their dogs. Each has its charms and shortcomings, but the basic theme that these movies try to get across for the sake of the youngest viewer is in how naturally loving a canine can be, and how we can depend on them just as much as they do on us. It’s a sweet message, and within context it works, but it always leaves out a key caveat that most don’t understand until they’re older and have learned the responsibilities that comes with owning a furry little buddy. You have to treat them just as well as they treat you. Despite what the likes of DC League of Super-Pets or The Secret Life of Pets would have you believe, the love of man’s best friend is not unconditional.
This should go without saying, but unfortunately the realities of the world don’t reflect that truth. Hundreds of thousands of pets are abandoned every year around the world, with a good number of them never finding a home and being put down. Still more are abused and mistreated, while others are selectively bred in shameful conditions. It’s more heartbreaking than any video montage set to Sarah McLachlan could ever convey. And for a lot of animal lovers like myself, there’s a deep-seated wish for those who wrong these good boys and girls to get the comeuppance they so richly deserve.
That highly specific revenge fantasy is the core plot motivation in Strays, an uproarious comedy adventure in the grandest traditions of the silly, R-rated shtick fest. The laughs come in rapid fire fashion, with the vast majority of them landing, but it’s in the moments of sly insight where the film truly becomes memorable.
Will Ferrell stars as the voice of Reggie, a happy-go-lucky scruff ball who was reluctantly adopted by the deadbeat Doug (Will Forte) as a puppy when his then-girlfriend saw how cute he was. After they break up — due to Doug’s infidelity which Reggie inadvertently exposes — Doug keeps him purely out of spite, even though he actively hates Reggie and everything he feels the dog represents. When Doug hits the proverbial rock bottom (evicted from his rundown flophouse and Reggie accidentally breaking his favorite bong), he abandons Reggie on the streets of a city three hours away.
The dynamics established here are simple yet perfect. Doug is just the worst kind of loser, but we’ve all met someone just like him. He blames everyone but himself for his problems, takes no positive steps to better himself, and treats those who love him like shit, be they human or dog. This contrasts perfectly with Reggie’s naïve innocence. Every day is the best day ever, and he loves everyone and everything, especially Doug. In fact, it takes several attempts for Doug to effectively rid himself of Reggie, because the dog interprets his circumstances as a fun game called “Fetch and Fuck,” based on the two words Doug says when he throws the ball far away and when Reggie makes it back home. Going back to the idealized version of a pup’s affection from those past kiddie flicks, there’s a tragic — but still funny — irony in how Reggie can’t grasp what’s happening to him. Part of this is because, in a rather smart creative decision, despite both parties speaking English, the film lays out plainly that the dogs can’t understand the humans but for a few words, and obviously the humans only hear barks, so there’s a solid barrier to keep the conflict tonally consistent, even though we in the audience know what everyone involved is saying and feeling.
Once Doug thinks he’s free of his charge for good, he peels away in his truck (his license plate reads “DEEZ” while mounted over a very large pair of dangling truck nuts, both a great visual gag and perhaps a subtle commentary on neutering), leaving Reggie alone with a tennis ball in his mouth and Ferrell’s enthusiastic inner monologue about this latest escalation of the “game.” He begins trying to find his way back, but before long he’s accosted by some much larger, meaner mutts and saved by the diminutive Bug, a Boston terrier voiced by Jamie Foxx, who scares the bigger dogs away due to his loud, aggressive, crazy trash talk.
I’m just gonna say this right now. Bug is my world! I don’t know what it is, but there is just something about a character that’s meant to be adorable saying and doing the most foul-mouthed shit that always gets me. Whether it’s the Luma who yearns for death from The Super Mario Bros. Movie or June Squibb as a take-no-shit grandma in Nebraska, I just have no defense for it. I’m rendered especially helpless here, because Bug is just 200 degrees of precious. His eyes, his pointy little ears, the way he complains about his “little puppy paw pads” hurting, I just want to cuddle the ever-loving fuck out of him!
Anyway, Bug is a full-on stray dog, explained fully in a late flashback that I think anyone will see coming if they’ve ever seen a film like this before, whether it’s played straight or for laughs. He lives by three simple rules: One, if you pee on it, it’s yours; two, you can hump anything; three, you’re on your own. Despite that last point, Bug takes Reggie in and they become fast friends, with Bug showing Reggie the ropes of life on the streets. The pair sneaks into a dog park, where Bug introduces Reggie to two other friends, Maggie (Isla Fisher) and Hunter (Randall Park). While these two technically have owners, they are essentially “off the leash” due to their respective living situations. Hunter is a therapy dog at a senior living center and wears a protective cone due to his anxieties. Maggie has an influencer wannabe owner who dotes on her new puppy, leaving the Australian Shepherd basically unattended.
The quartet struts around the city, getting into all sorts of hijinks of varying levels of “appropriateness.” After solidifying their friendship, the other three work to convince Reggie that Doug was an abusive owner, and that he shouldn’t be trying to go back to such a bad environment. Finally realizing the truth, Reggie resolves to return to Doug after all, but only to make him pay for his misdeeds by biting off his penis, taking away the only thing he really loves as punishment for taking Reggie’s love for granted. In a world where dogs are neutered before they’re even adopted, the penance for a bad owner is his own Bob Barker treatment. As extreme of an idea as this is, the movie does its due diligence to show that nearly all of Doug’s motivations are libido-based, so it does make an odd sort of sense.
The resulting journey is filled to bursting with great gags, both visual and dialogue-driven. They get high on mushrooms, hump lawn furniture, steal food, and stage a jailbreak with poop. Maggie and Hunter play into their unresolved sexual tension, focused mostly on Hunter’s cone and his apparently massive red rocket. A hawk swoops in and carries Bug off, causing Reggie to try a daring rescue that is observed by Dennis Quaid out on a birdwatching expedition. Not only is the cameo hilarious, but just for good measure, his ornithological checklist is just a book full of tick boxes with the word “BIRD” written next to all of them.
All of this is beyond sophomoric, but it works within context. Bug’s hard-nosed worldview contrasts perfectly with Reggie’s wet-nosed acceptance of everything at face value, extending the juxtaposition between him and Doug but in a more healthy, positive manner. But also, let’s just face it, dogs do all of this shit. They steal food. They hump lawn furniture. They poop EVERYWHERE, sometimes in a way that feels like it’s intentionally trying to annoy you. For example, the first time I babysat the little guy I feature in my latest video, he was nervous the first night staying with me, and the next morning, as I was getting ready to take him for his walk, the instant I touched the doorknob he shakily sprayed diarrhea all over the entryway of my apartment, and it was among the most foul things I ever smelled as I cleaned it up. He was fine after that, but the timing almost seemed like a power move. We were literally ten seconds away from being outside where he could go freely, but nope. It was disgusting as hell, but I still had to laugh, because objectively, it was pretty funny.
Some of the jokes stretch the limits of believability, sure. I mean, has anyone ever seen a dog trip balls? But again, there is a lot of humor derived from the basic reality of canine behavior, as well as the anthropomorphism we like to project onto them. It’s Airplane! and Monty Python levels of absurd, but it is still amazingly grounded in what we feel and experience with our furry companions. All of this is aided by the expert trainers on hand to bring the animals’ movements to life, as well as the low-key CGI that makes the dogs’ mouth movements look realistic when they talk to one another. That latter part might seem like a minor element, but it goes a long way towards making us connect.
The most surprising aspect of the whole thing, however, is in the empathetic explorations of mental health and relationship issues. In the midst of all the shit jokes (again, for once they’re appropriate given who’s making them), there’s a genuine examination of Reggie’s lack of self-esteem and devotion to Doug in spite of everything because he wants to be called a “good boy.” The way his story arc plays as a perfect illustration of abusive codependency is something I would have never seen coming in such a trifle of a film as this. Similarly, Bug and Maggie’s stories touch on how disposable pets are to some people, and Hunter’s grappling with his insecurities is shockingly effective. We as humans weirdly use our fur babies as mirrors for so many of our emotional problems, so it’s only natural to have them act out those very complex thoughts, and then punctuate them with a well-timed cameo by Sofia Vergara as a disused couch that Bug likes to bone.
The movie as a whole is far from perfect. Some of the plotting is too simplistic and convenient even for a low-stakes comedy, particularly the subplot about a missing girl scout. The source for Bug’s disdain for humanity is all too predictable. Some of the throwaway gags get more screen time than the knee slappers that are reduced to montage. And obviously, the biggest ask the film makes of us is to believe the initial conceit that Doug wouldn’t just let his ex have Reggie after a while, or just give him up at a shelter rather than hoping he’ll run away or not bring back the ball he’s told to fetch. He clearly hates Reggie and he’s lazy as hell, so why would he go to such comical lengths to get rid of his dog rather than taking the easy way out?
But in the grand scheme, none of that matters. The raunchy comedy is a fading artform, and we need solid entries like this to remind us that the well is far from dry. Not only is Strays one of the funniest films of the year, it does actually convey a sneakily important lesson to treat your pets the way you’d want them to treat you, something the more “safe” movies don’t bother to do. The films aimed at children just want the audience to feel warm and fuzzy by the end and leave with a smile, even if it requires some well-meaning dishonesty and pretending that there’s an easy solution to everything. This one, on the other hand, decides to be brutally honest with the viewers, giving them a hearty laugh and a dire warning to keep in mind.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Which of the dogs is your favorite? What kind of shit do you think Dennis Quaid’s seen? Let me know! Also, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for more content!